Grace Stoddard likes to recount that on her first date with her future husband, he brought along a butterfly net and caught two white butterflies.
“In those days, it was not so cool to chase butterflies on your first date,” she quipped.
Her husband, Terry Stoddard, remembers the day well. It was June 15, 1958. The butterflies he caught? The California Marble, Latin name, euchloe hyantis andrewsi. They may be extinct now, he fears.
Stoddard has had a lifelong love of butterflies, and for the last eight years, he’s shared his enthusiasm with receptive students at The Dalles Middle School and Dry Hollow Elementary.
This year, it got to be too much to do both schools, so he and Grace have scaled back to the middle school, where they meet Wednesdays after school for 75 minutes.
With an energy belying his 80 years, Mr. Stoddard flits from table to table, heaping praise on the exacting work he sees as students pin moistened butterflies to “spreading boards” so their wings can dry out at a slight seven-degree angle, ideal for display.
The spreading board has a slot down the middle to hold the body of the butterfly, and angled sides where the wings are positioned. Thin paper is pinned over each wing to hold them flat until they dry out.
The other tools of the trade are tweezers, pins, thin tape, and wider strips of paper. “You don’t want to touch the wings,” Mr. Stoddard advised a student. “They have a lot of scales on them.”
He has the kids start with common butterflies before trying their hand at the more exotic-looking ones. The work takes a certain level of dexterity.
Grace Stoddard said, “What he teaches them in the mounting process is very precise and is what college students would be taught if they were to take a class in mounting butterflies.”
On a recent Wednesday, Aela Buchanan, a seventh grader, painstakingly pinned a butterfly to the board while fielding questions from a reporter.
As expected, the creatures are “very” delicate, she said. The biggest risk? Sneezing. The consequence? “Generally, a wing comes off.”
The dried butterflies are carefully transferred to a wooden show case with a lid. The lid has to be opened and closed slowly because even the slight whoosh of air caused by opening it could be enough to destroy a butterfly, Buchanan said.
She’s in butterfly club because “It keeps my mind off other things. It’s something I just zone out into. It’s something I can just focus on.”
As students work, Grace Stoddard walks around offering Oreo cookies. Both Stoddards are retired teachers who moved to the area 20 years ago to be near their daughter, high school English teacher Mary Snodgrass, and her family.
Mr. Stoddard has volunteered in the schools for years, and one day he saw a student had a book about monarch butterflies—but, unbelievably, the picture on the cover wasn’t a monarch. He decided then and there to form a butterfly club.
The process of mounting butterflies starts with students perusing the available butterflies, stored in a series of see-through containers lined with paper towels soaked in water to keep them moist, and a chemical added to prevent mildew, which would turn the butterflies white. The most important thing about those boxes, Mr. Stoddard said, is that the lid is carefully replaced to prevent drying.
The butterflies are all collected by Mr. Stoddard. He’s gone to south and Central America nine times on butterfly collecting trips, where the specimens are “generally more showy.” But he said butterflies found in the high elevations of the American West “are some of the most interesting butterflies in the world.”
He of course “never, never” collects any threatened species. He might hike in a mile or two for his finds, soldiering on with his one artificial knee and two artificial shoulders.
He collects them live and puts them in a container with a chemical that quickly and painlessly kills them, shortening an already short life. Butterflies live about 2-3 weeks.
He’s also never sold or bought butterflies.
Asked why he loves butterflies so much, he said, “Why? I don’t know.”
His wife explains, “His mom got him started as a boy and it just took.”
Buchanan has been in butterfly club since fifth grade. She’s become pretty fast at the procedure, and can affix a butterfly to the spreading board in about two minutes, expertly taping a thin strip over each wing, holding the wings flat so they can be positioned. Once they are positioned, a thin piece of paper goes over the top of each wing, pinned tightly into place with five pins. Each pin is as close to the wing as possible, without touching it, she said.
“It took me quite awhile to actually get the hang of it,” Buchanan said.
Mr. Stoddard comes by to look at her work. “That’s fantastic. Good job.”
Buchanan had a close call when a butterfly came off the pin that mounts it. She called for Mr. Stoddard’s help, but was able to rectify the problem herself. “Oh, fixed it!” she said happily. Then she dropped her tweezers in her display box and let out a frustrated, “Ahh!”
The biggest error, Buchanan said, is usually letting the wings dry for too long, and then they’re too brittle to make the move from the spreading board to the display box.
Some of her older butterflies have lost their wings. Her favorite is a small, bright orange butterfly. She can’t remember the name of it, but usually Mr. Stoddard teaches them the names of all the butterflies in their collection, she said.
Some of the butterflies have impressive wingspans and a number of them have bright, even iridescent, colors.
Stoddard helps a newer student mount a butterfly, carefully positioning each wing by nudging it with a pin, always selecting a spot near the veins in the middle of the wing. The veins closer to the body are too thick, and they’re too thin at the outer edge of the wings. Both latter scenarios will rip the wings.
He tells eighth grader Alexia Leos, “I can’t tell you how good you’ve mounted them.”
As the afternoon winds down, students start to leave. He dispenses a few hugs.
Olivia Witkowski is in sixth grade and said, “I’ve been doing this for two years. Mr. Stoddard is my best friend.”
Alexander Billings, a sixth grader and self-described comedian, said he was busy “talking with friends—and foe,” he said while pointedly looking at a girl to his left.
The worst mishap Billings has had was the time he went to remove a butterfly from the spreading board, and instead of lifting up the whole butterfly, he just ended up with the body, leaving it wingless.
But fear not. Mr. Stoddard can work repair wonders with the help of clear fingernail polish, Billings said.
Sometimes, though, Mr. Stoddard said, “There’s catastrophes and there’s nothing you can do.”
But at the end of the year, the students have a treasure that can last a lifetime, or longer. “Some museums have 200-year-old butterflies,” he said.
“On balance they enjoy it,” he added, “and it’s an experience they probably won’t have again.”